Best of 2015

2015

I think I disappointed myself this year. The obvious lack of writing was one thing, but looking back on the music I acquired I realize I could have done better. The quantity wasn’t too far below normal – 73 purchases of new music in 52 weeks ain’t bad – but what I chose to buy is what I’m disappointed in. While I’m a massive proponent of new, unknown music, I really didn’t focus on it much this year. As you’ll see in my list, much of what I spent my time with isn’t exactly unheard of. Although I may have valid excuses – I’m now living in a different country with a new job – it’s just the sort of end-of-year reflection I needed to get me excited about a new direction.

The other argument is I simply got bored with what was offered. There were an insane amount of follow-ups and new releases from some of my favorite bands that fell short of what I was hoping for. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe this year marked a new stage for me; where the 2-3 year cycle of bands releasing albums has repeated for the first time since I’ve been writing about metal and I was simply numb to it. For just a small taste of what I’m talking about, the new albums from Sigh, Christian Mistress, Vastum, Blind Guardian, Ghost, Fluisteraars, Black Breath, Cattle Decapitation, Istapp, Drudkh, Nocternity, and Marduk all fell too short to make it into my favorites of the year. All of those bands have previously put out music I consider utterly essential, so it was a pretty huge shock for me not to have included any of them on this list.

That’s a pessimistic note to start off on, for sure. But that isn’t to say 2015 didn’t have its gems. Compiling this list took longer than expected, largely because deciding what was worthy seemed to be tougher than ever. Very few of my favorite albums were from bands I thought would blow me away, and most from groups I’d previously never given a fair chance or expected too much of. But that’s okay, as it makes me more excited than ever to seek out that which is new and unknown.

Devotion for the Devil

20. Aegrus – Devotion for the Devil

While hardly newcomers to the Finnish scene, the duo Aegrus put out their first full-length after a decade of haunting the underground. While not particularly groundbreaking, Devotion For the Devil holds high the banner of fellow countrymen like Sargeist and Horna with their no-bullshit approach, raw production, and ear for infectious guitar licks. The self-titled track has one of the best melodies in ages, and that track alone makes this album one of my favorites of the year.

Realm of Sacrifice

19. Vanum – Realm of Sacrifice

If you’re a fan of Ash Borer but always thought their production left too much to the imagination, their side-project Vanum is more than you could ever hope for. The four longform dirges follow the atmospheric black metal guidelines to the letter, but the quality of the recording and the depth of the mournful riffs make Realm of Sacrifice a welcome debut and sets a new standard for the style.

The Dreaming I

18. Akhyls – The Dreaming I

Nightbringer were always just a tad too insane for my tastes. Their unholy talent is unquestionable, but the neverending squall they produce is a bit far removed from what I would consider accessible. But, like Vanum, this year saw a side-project come out with an album containing the same foundation, but wholly more palatable. Still within the Blut Aus Nord recipe of chaos mixed with familiarity, the one-man project exudes dense atmosphere and never-ending intrigue. It’s absorbing and intimidating, without being overly complex. This is what black metal should be.

The Dreaming I

17. Macabre Omen- Gods of War – At War

Paying homage to the Hellenic scene as well as all things Scandinavian and mighty, Macabre Omen’s first album in ten years is an hour-long call to arms of titanic proportions. Treading water somewhere close to black metal, the only true descriptor for Gods of War – At War is epic. Each track holds its own sense of glory and pride, as the enchanting guitars and pummeling drums provide a mighty soundtrack to those marching off to war… or at least reading The Iliad.

Evil Power

16. Deathhammer – Evil Power

In my full review of Evil Power, I gushed about Slayer’s Show No Mercy and how this album is a perfect follow-up to it, albeit 30 years later. It falls under the early 80s definition of extreme metal, when speed, death, black, and thrash were essentially one and the same. This definition also made sure that the bands didn’t take themselves too seriously, and Deathhammer did not break that rule. Evil Power is over-the-top and utterly ridiculous most of the time, but sometimes that’s exactly what metal needs to be.

Execration-Morbid-Dimensions

15. Horrendous – Anareta

Horrendous are on a roll unlike any other band on the planet right now, with three albums in four years all receiving endless praid. I want to say they’re destined for great things, but it’s hard to imagine them improving on what they’ve already accomplished, especially with such a masterfully crafted album as Anareta. It’s dynamic, interesting, and perfectly produced, and proves that it’s possible for bands who start off as throwback imitators can grow into their own after the shedding of skin.

Tormenting The Innocent

14. Bio-Cancer – Tormenting The Innocent

I’ve never been a huge thrash fan. Beyond what the greats did in the 80s and a sprinkling of albums here and there after that, it’s safe to say it’s the most one-dimensional subgenre in extreme metal – as re-thrash scene proves year after year. For a modern thrash band to stick out, they have to be doing something very, very different. And that’s why Bio-Cancer is on this list. The relentless, hyper-speed assault is as batshit insane as it is clever and makes for a stupidly rewarding listen.

Deeper Than Sky

13. VHOL – Deeper Than Sky

Ludicra, Hammers of Misfortune, and Agalloch are some of my favorite metal acts of all time. So their members coming together to lay down some tasty jams sounded like a dream come true when VHOL was first announced. Unfortunately, their debut failed to live up to the hype due to a noticeable lack of hooks and a subpar production. That all changed with the release of Deeper Than Sky. At once tighter and more experimental, it’s the true sound of incredibly talented musicians having fun with no genre restrictions. A bastard combination of d-beat, heavy metal, and black metal, it shows each musician doing what they do best without sounding like anything else.

Out Of The Garden

12. Crypt Sermon – Out Of The Garden

Candlemass are the best thing to ever happen to Doom. Their injection of NWOBHM fun and soaring vocals in what’s typically a depressing and downtempo genre have spawned hundreds of imitators who try to play with the lighter side of darkness. Newcomers Crypt Sermon approach the style better than most, as their debut album about crusaders marching off to war proves. The choruses and hooks are as good as you can find in the genre, and the journey is worthy of dozens of repeated treks.

In Times

11. Enslaved – In Times

As I’ve written many times before and likely will for a long while, I consider Enslaved to be the greatest metal band of all time. Their long, varied career has had almost no missteps, and they’ve consistently challenged the status quo and never put out an album even remotely similar to what any other band in the world is doing. So a new Enslaved album is an event for me. Unfortunately, I found In Times to be the least rewarding album of their current period. That isn’t to say it’s bad, but the second half of the album drags; with all the songs basically the same length and structure, it can be hard to differentiate all that’s going on. But the first half containing some of the best-written songs in their history, it’s still a monster of an album containing world class proggy black metal. But the album shows it might be time for them to try something new.

The Mysterious Ways Of Repetitive Art

10. Chapel of Disease – The Mysterious Ways Of Repetitive Art

The recent spike in atmospheric death metal started by Tribulation and Morbus Chron is still going strong. With a doomier and more esoteric vibe, Germans Chapel of Disease put out a monster of an album with The Mysterious Ways Of Repetitive Art. Containing a myriad of influences, the constant tempo changes and amorphous song structures make for a fascinating listen. It’s unsettling and hard to classify, but it’s one of those albums that crawls deeper under the skin and grabs ahold of your soul.

Second Storm

9. Lancer – Second Storm

Blind Guardian is one of the world’s most beloved power bands. While their most recent releases received gobs of praise, I just couldn’t dig the overly orchestral songs and bombastic approach. Not every track needs to be an opus, guys. While I was still getting over the bad taste Beyond The Red Mirror left in my mouth, I stumbled across Sweden’s Lancer. Their stripped-down approach reminds of German bards in their younger years; straight up power/speed metal with none of the cruft. Second Storm is majestic and fun, without being too concerned with epic song lengths and structures, and they’re already hoping for world fame with their use of ridiculous (but fitting) mascot.

Exercises in Futility

8. Mgła – Exercises in Futility

It’s rare that a no-frills black metal band can make such a big splash on the global stage. Coming across a band as acclaimed as Mgła you would expect something utterly different and singular about them. But there are no gimmicks, no post- anything, no keyboards, or even really any experimentation. But that’s okay! Mgła play black metal, and they do it damn well. III, IV, and V are some of the best songs they’ve ever written, and while the album as a whole doesn’t live up to the legendary With Hearts Towards None, there’s no better album this year that shows off black metal’s glory years without containing an ounce of bullshit.

From Beyond

7. Enforcer – From Beyond

Ah, Enforcer. Solely responsible for reviving my interest in the modern heavy metal scene, they’re still one of the best in the world at what they do. The hooks are never-ending, the glam homages endless. From Beyond may be the most grown-up album of their career, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun. With their songwriting chops proven long ago, they’re starting to explore new ways of doing things and it’s a great ride to witness. If a song like “Farewell” doesn’t convince you – and have you playing air guitar – then it’s likely nothing else this side of the 80s will be satisfying.

The Children of the Night

6. Tribulation – The Children of the Night

Tribulation continue to crawl towards the light on their third full-length. With their debut being a relentless death/thrash assault and their second being an unclassifiable masterpiece dripping with atmosphere, The Children of the Night tones things down a bit. Like the soundtrack to a not-quite horror movie, it contains an existential sense of groove that’s both haunting and devilishly entertaining. I wouldn’t be surprised if they go the way of Opeth in a release or two, but right now they’re riding that transition period flawlessly.

Beautiful And Damned

5. Slægt – Beautiful And Damned

Ten months after their debut full-length, Denmark’s Slægt released this four track EP. What was surprising wasn’t just the short turnaround time, but the fact that the band seemed to completely re-invent themselves in less than a year. While Ildsvanger had its moments, with the atrocious recording quality and lackluster vocals it hardly stood out in the land of raw black metal. Beautiful And Damned, on the other hand, sounds as gorgeous as black metal gets, with infectious riffs standing front and center. Getting rid of their former bad habits, the band now sounds like Dissection with a deep rock-n-roll groove and endless twin guitar harmonies. The songs are relatively short and sweet, spending just enough time developing before evaporating into the ether. Although it’s just a EP, it’s one of the most impressive records of the year.

Illusions in Infinite Void

4. Sacral Rage – Illusions in Infinite Void

In a unique year, Greece’s best metal export wasn’t black. It was the throwback quartet of Sacral Rage, who terrorize the line between technical thrash and speed metal. Although they contain more than a few obvious influences, their new take on what always been a niche sound will hopefully be responsible for making it popular again. I’m usually not one for music videos, but the clip for “A Tyrannous Revolt” does a perfect job of showcasing each musician’s grueling tasks as they power through one of the riffiest songs of the year, and it’s only a small taste of the impressive chops belonging to the young Greeks.

The Revenant King

3. Visigoth – The Revenant King

Sometimes you need to just pump your fist and scream about ghosts and goblins at the top of your voice. And for that, there’s Visigoth. Making the jump to Metal Blade after just a handful of songs, these young Utahns now carry the torch for what it means to be a heavy metal band. Endlessly catchy and entertaining, The Revenant King is loaded with some of the best choruses of the year. Seeing them live on my birthday may have artificially inflated the place of of this album in my heart, but the fact that this is the first records to make me seriously consider playing D&D means it’s something special.

Untitled

2. FALSE – Untitled

Probably the nicest black metal musicians in the world, FALSE finally put out their debut full-length after stunning the scene with their first EP four years ago. Their brand of longform, marathon black metal has only matured along with them, as this album is as close to perfect chaos as can be imagined. There’s hardly a moment to catch your breath as they tear through an hour’s worth of fiery hellscapes that never stray too far from beauty, and the relentless passion coming from such a young band is unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

Under The Red Cloud

1. Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud

Amorphis are a weird beast. One of the most unique and quintessential death metal bands of the 90s, they suddenly transformed themselves around the turn of the millennium into something inexplicable. Shedding most traces of extreme metal, they started playing a sort of melodic, anthemic hard rock with only the occasional hint of death or progressive metal peaking through. While many fans were baffled, they proved themselves with the one-two-three punch of Eclipse, Silent Waters and Skyforger as one of the most dynamic bands around.

But then came an unnecessary re-recording of their early material and the extremely lackluster Beginning of Times and Circle; I assumed they had lost their steam. Which is why I was hesitant to pick up Under the Red Cloud. But still being on an Amorphis high after seeing their Tales From The Thousand Lakes 20th anniversary tour in Germany at the end of 2014 I decided to give them another chance. Holy shit, I’m glad I did.

Right when the first track kicks in it’s clear all they’ve relit the fires in their bellies and not just creating solid songs, but attacking them with an unprecedented ferocity. With an hour runtime including the bonus tracks, it still feels too short. Every track is essential Amorphis, and it plays more like a ‘best of’ than it does a new album decades after they formed. There’s not a single song, hell, or even minute, that feels unnecessary. And it’s not just that they’ve tightened things up and re-learned how to write great songs – they’re still experimenting. The sitar on “Death of a King” and collaboration with Eluveitie mainmain Chrigel Glanzmann on “Tree of Ages” inject enough intrigue to prove they’re still having fun and taking risks. It’s not only the best work of their post-death metal phase, it’s the best record in this amazing band’s 25 year history.

The Spread of Ashes

AshBorer2015

In my mind there have always been two distinct flavors of USBM. On the one side you have the crust-influenced madness of Woe, Ludicra, and Nachtmystium. Those who wear their love of punk on their sleeves and have a flair for experimentation. The other camp is more mystical. The double-digit songs and hypnotic repetition that was born with Weakling proved to be immensely popular and lives on through the likes of Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice, and Yellow Eyes. Of these, I’ve always considered Ash Borer the best. While they have sprinklings of the former group, their epic dirges place them more squarely in the second of these made-up camps. I’ve somehow managed to see them more times than I can count, and their incredible performances only solidified their place in my mind as USBM’s torchbearers.

And while it’s been far too long since their last release, the individual members have been far from silent. 2015 has seen an eruption of side projects churning out incredible music that is easily traced back to their core sound. The following were all released in the past few months and contain at least one Ash Borer member.

Vanum


The highest profile name on this list, Vanum recently released their debut on Profound Lore. It’s a shock they haven’t garnered more attention, as the band is clearly of the highest quality and very much aligned with the rest of the label’s roster. Very similar to Ash Borer, Vanum play a slightly-atmospheric form of black metal; albeit with more polish and a couple minutes trimmed from the song lengths. Nods to post-rock seep through occasionally, with songs varying as they still stay rooted. This is a shining continuation of a sound the members helped create.

Predatory Light


Possibly the best extreme metal band that has ever come out of Seattle, Anhedonist’s brand of meloncholic death/doom was a revelation, so it was a major blow to our local scene when they called it quits. So when their former bassist joined forces with Ash Borer’s Kyle Morgan, it was an exciting announcement. And their union sounds uncannily like the two bands fused together. The dreary, heavy assault has a clear sheen of black metal mixed in that should appeal to fans of all things murky and punishing. Their recent split with Vorde, who in turn play longform black metal with a touch of psychedelia, is a fantastic collaboration.

Uškumgallu


Focusing on the more intense side of Ash Borer’s influence, Uškumgallu go right for the throat with their more simplistic attack. A punk flavor occasionally erupts for a brief period or two, a great complement to the bleak nature of their sound. The production on this demo is murky at best, but it’s clear that was intention.

Serum Dreg


With the same two members as Uškumgallu, Serum Dreg sees them switching duties slightly for a wholly different sound. Ethereal yet intense, they take on a death metal structure while playing an interesting form of black metal that’s clearly influenced by sludge and crust. What sound like interesting guitar riffs are hidden beneath overpowering bass and and reverbed vocals, but at least they’re taking risks with their mix—a rarity in this type of music.

The overwhelming number of projects emerging from the Ash Borer camp shows the members at the height of their creative output. I can’t wait to see that energy captured together when the band works as one again.

FALSE – Untitled

FALSE - Untitled LP

I can trace my growth from a casual metal fan to a diehard longhair to the summer of 2011. I had just started my love affair with Ludicra when they abruptly decided to call it quits. Upset and confused, I began scouring the internet to fill the forward-thinking, black hole in my heart. A whole new world of music was brought to my attention, a cavernous pit of talent in which I had simply never put forth the effort to explore. But among this wealth of incredible music reaching me, one band had a singularly profound effect. While looking into a relatively new distro and vinyl label called Gilead Media, I started to hear some buzz about a shadowy collective from the Midwest. Despite the fact they had only two recorded songs, the way people wrote about them made me feel like I was witnessing the birth of something special, something that only comes along every decade or so. And indeed, they are.

I obsessively listened to those two tracks from the Untitled EP over and over, finding hidden nuance upon every return. Just 24 minutes of music, they contained endless hours of exploration an ever-changing personal meaning.The next year found me reacting much the same way with “Heavy as a Church Tower”, the single longform track they contributed to a split with Barghest. What followed was almost three years of silence. For a time when fans have grown used to bands issuing updates on an almost hourly basis, this felt like an eternity. It wouldn’t have been at all unexpected for FALSE to quietly disband after a few years of seeming inactivity, but having seen them live and witnessing their passion and dedication, I refused to believe they were finished.

So finally, here we are. A proper FALSE full-length, and one of epic proportions. This new Untitled work more than doubles their back catalog in both time and total number of tracks, and it was absolutely worth the wait. Without making any drastic changes to their formula, the music is as engrossing and intense as before. But this time it’s a proper journey into gorgeous extremity, rather than just a foray. The result is a breathtaking bombardment on all the senses. While any attempt at categorization couldn’t possibly do their unique sound justice, I like to view the Minneapolis sextet as the perfect bridge between the upper echelon of the Second Wave and nuanced USBM experimentation. For those of us who speak names like Emperor and Weakling in hushed, reverent tones there is no din more exciting than the one FALSE creates. Grandiose, thrilling, and relentless, Untitled is ultimately a testament to how beautiful sheer extremity can be.

This album contains everything I love about black metal, and metal as a whole. Densely layered, unrelenting, abrasive, yet containing just enough rounded edges and gripping melodies to keep a sense of humanity to it all. It’s not singularly riffs, atmosphere or composition that make FALSE masters of their craft. They masterfully rely on a balance of all their tools to arrange their assault. The choice to record the guitars and drums live perfectly captures their intensity and dedication to an undoctored, natural sound. Hearing a breath taken before a torrent of fiery screams pour forth or the untriggered bass drums as they speed along along only adds to the drama. The way Untitled was recorded is as close to experiencing FALSE live show as one can get, though nothing will ever be that powerful. There’s hardly a moment’s respite as they race at a breakneck pace through the five tracks; only when a masterful tempo shift or brief intro is inserted do FALSE give themselves or the listener a chance to take a breath. And that’s part of what makes Untitled so utterly brilliant.

It’s rare that the initial hype of a new band ever flourishes into something long-lasting or meaningful, but FALSE are so far beyond what a normal group is capable of that in this case it’s unsurprising. I’ve waited patiently for a full release and now that it’s here it’s almost overpowering, overwhelming. Their style of unrelenting, aggressively beautiful black metal has grown stronger as they’ve aged and this hour of attention-demanding sonic beauty is unlike any other. With this flawless full-length FALSE prove they are a force to be reckoned with, peerless, and one of the most important bands of the decade.